Sunday, May 17, 2009

Necessary Ice

I just flew back from a week-end jaunt to the East coast and are my arms tired! (From all the flapping of my arms. It's an old joke.)

I flew out to celebrate my dad's 90th birthday, but I didn't fly by flapping my arms -- I decided to make the trip in an airplane instead. Or actually four airplanes, since I had to catch a connecting flight going there and coming back. And since it's fresh in my mind, I thought I'd share my experiences with you.

You may recall that I wrote a similar post about a year and a half ago, when I was flying back East for Thanksgiving. You may also recall that I referred to the same joke at the beginning of that post as well. I don't know why. It was never a funny joke. It's more like a classic joke. I probably first heard it more than 45 years ago.

And in answer to the question I often get asked when I mention that I'm going back East to visit a member of my family, no, I'm not from back East. The confusion might arise from the phrase "back East" which could be interpreted to mean that I'm going back to the East, implying that that's where I came from. But that's just a phrase. We don't say "back West" or "back South" or "back "North" -- we say "out West" and "down South" and "up North." I think the only reason we say "back East" is that this country of ours was established in the East.

Anyway, I'm from California. But my older sister and my dad live in different parts of the East coast. And even that's not quite accurate, since even though my dad lives in one of the states on the East coast, he probably lives about 400 miles inland.

But to get on with today's topic, now that that the airlines have lost so much money, they try to pass on as many costs as they can to the only people they can: the passengers. They've always been doing this, of course, except that now it's so much more overt. For example, it's almost impossible to pay for an airline ticket with frequent flier miles. It used to be simple: You accrued something like 20,000 or 25,000 miles and you could redeem them for a ticket. But now -- on United Airlines, at least -- they have the standard mileage award and some other kind of award. For the standard award, you only need 30,000 miles for a domestic round-trip flight, but there are so many restrictions and black-out dates that you can never actually use them. For the other type of award, it seems like the more miles you've accrued, the more miles you need to book a flight.

They don't serve complimentary meals on cross-country flights anymore, but they stopped doing that long before they started losing so much money. And to be honest, I don't think anyone minds. You can still buy a meal, but I've never seen anyone do it. So this was a wise move on the airlines' part.

I always buy my ticket online. I check in and print my boarding pass online as well. When you check in online, they give you all sorts of upgrade options, such as paying more for additional legroom, or faster check-in. I don't know what the faster check-in upgrade is all about, but it seems like a rip-off. And I used to think that the extra legroom upgrade was a big rip-off, but that was only because I chose that option on a small plane for a short flight, and I think I paid about $30 for an inch or so of extra legroom. I remember trying to get my money back from United, but they were unrelenting. And you don't want to complain too much to an airline, or else they'll put you on the national "no fly list" and screw up your life forever.

But this time, I decided to try it again on the two longer flights. It was $49 extra for each flight, and for that $49 you get about three or four extra inches of legroom. It doesn't sound like much, and at about $15 per inch it sounds like a rip-off, but it was well worth it, because those few extra inches make all the difference between feeling like you're trapped inside a tiny cage and feeling like you're trapped in a larger, more comfortable cage. All you're really getting for your extra $49 is the about the same amount of legroom they used to give you with a regular economy class seat about 15 or 20 years ago, but in this day and age of reduced expectations and increased corporate rip-offs, it feels like a luxury.

You don't get as much legroom as you would on a more expensive seat, but even if I had the money, I don't think I could justify paying out the wazoo or out the yin-yang for a business class or first class seat, respectively. And I'm not sure of this, so is the expression "out the wazoo (or yin-yang)" or "up the wazoo (or yin-yang)"? I had a brief discussion with my older sister about this, but I'm not convinced there's a right answer. I think they might each be correct in different contexts, which is to say that they might not be completely synonymous.

But here's another thing that made me think the airlines are in financial trouble. It used to be that no matter how short the flight, they'd still offer what they call "complimentary beverage service," but on the two short flights I took, they mentioned that since the flights only lasted about about 35 minutes, they wouldn't be providing that service. They did decide to offer us water on one of those flights, however. That's no big deal, and it's hardly worth mentioning, but what's more interesting to me is what happened on one of the longer flights.

But first, to put this whole thing in some sort of historical context, I have to mention that in the past, whenever they wheeled the drink cart down the aisle, I used to ask for orange juice. The flight attendant would then take a cup, fill it with ice, then pour the orange juice over the ice and hand me the cup. I realized I was getting approximately equal parts of orange juice and ice, so I started asking for orange juice with no ice. But then I noticed that if you order something from a can, they gave you the entire can so, for example, instead of getting about six ounces of orange juice, you got maybe 16 ounces of apple juice. So I started asking for apple juice.

But on my recent flight from Los Angeles to Washington DC, when I asked for apple juice, the attendant asked me, "Do you need any ice with that?" My first thought was that United Airlines must really be struggling if it's trying to save money on ice costs. Keep in mind that you used to explicitly ask for no ice. But this time I was asked not just if I wanted any ice, but if I needed any ice. Of course the answer is no -- nobody needs ice for a can of apple juice that's already somewhat cold, but I answered yes anyway, just because I don't want to see the day when they start charging passengers extra for ice.

And since you can't talk about airline service today without thinking about what it used to be like, I couldn't help remembering something that used to always happen in the late '80s and maybe early '90s. This had nothing to do with the airlines but with the passengers themselves. It seemed like about 20 years ago, whenever a plane landed, all the passengers would applaud. Well, not all the passengers -- I never applauded, for example, because I thought it was a stupid thing to do. I could see applauding if we were flying through a dangerous storm and the pilot had somehow managed to snatch the passengers from the jaws of certain death, but for a normal, everyday flight, there's really no reason for it. And I don't think the flight crew feels slighted if they don't get any applause -- I actually think they'd feel insulted if they were applauded. If some guy told you you did a really good job on something you didn't consider all that difficult, wouldn't you feel like he was underestimating your abilities?

Anyway, I'm glad that that embarrassing custom has died. I would have forgotten about it completely, but there was a woman on one of my flights who tried to resurrect that childish behavior. Fortunately, no one followed her lead, so her attempts at resurrection were unsuccessful. That made me feel good. It made me feel more confident about the future of the human race.

But here's some behavior that makes me feel a little bit worse about it. I never saw myself as the Law and Order type, but there are certain laws that I follow without question, because they make a lot of sense. For example, if the airline luggage policies state that carry-on luggage must be no greater than a certain size, I wouldn't try to stuff a bag that was two or three times that size into an overhead bin. But I saw that happen a lot. I don't know why the people who check the boarding passes as you enter the plane always look the other way when someone drags a huge bag behind him. There's rarely enough room in the overhead bins anyway, and when someone brings a huge bag aboard, the flight attendants just have to take the bag and check it in, which slows things down for everyone.

It's not that I don't sympathize with the passengers, by the way. The maximum size for carry-on luggage is pretty small, and you're only able to take one piece on the plane with you. So if you're going on an extended trip, you're probably going to have to check some of your baggage. Of course, that means you've got a pretty good chance of never seeing your baggage again, but that's just how things go: You pay your money and you take your chances.

Anyway, on the flight from Dulles back to LAX, when it came time for the complimentary beverage service, I asked for some apple juice and the flight attendant gave me some ice without even asking me if I needed any, but then she asked me if I wanted the whole can. So I inferred that United Airlines has no specific beverage policy, and I can only assume that the flight attendants were acting on their own rather than acting on orders from above.

Incidentally, on that flight, they came around twice with the beverage cart, and on the second time I asked for apple juice with no ice, which is actually the way I prefer it. When drinks are too cold or too hot, most of the flavor is masked by the temperature. So I never use ice when I'm at home.